In our electronic age, toys entertain children with bleeps, blinking lights and predictable buttons to push, characters with personalities and actions established by what's on the television screen. Video games offer fast paced, up-front, in your face action. From Leapfrog(TM) to Play Station 2(TM), PSP(TM), the Xbox(TM), or the new Xbox 360(TM), what happens next is completely determined by what happens in the "mind of the box." Despite their presence for over a decade, electronic toys are not languishing, but breeding faster, more brilliant visuals, catchy sounds, "realistic movements," detailed scenarios and intense action.
The Marriage of Toys and Technology
Parents are concerned about their children's development on emotional, social, physical, spiritual, and intellectual levels. In recent years, "educational toys" have been a booming business. Well-intentioned parents go into toy stores and department stores with these things in mind... "My kids need to be able to read and write and do math. My kids need to develop greater creativity and inspiring thought. My kids need exposure to technology to succeed - no, to survive, in the world today."
Not surprising. Parents today come from an age when logical-sequential thinking was highly prized, and reading, writing, and math was the most widely inculcated focus of educators. Enter technology...exploding in its influence in everyday life and there's a new interest in exposing children to its possibilities. Catching the profit bearing winds and finding a niche in a booming market...toy manufacturers have incorporated technological advances that wow children and present the golden calf of electronic learning toys to parents.
Window into a Child's Playtime
Recently, my daughter received an electronic game for a gift. For the last two days, I have watched her visit her toy, repeating the same action of pushing letters again and again - not appearing interested in anything but getting the thing to speak as rapidly as possible. Within a few days, the newness wore off. Proving that initially, these toys do draw children in, but does the interest last?
In contrast, Alaina's favorite, enduring playthings are blocks, dolls, toy cars, and animal figures. She stacks the blocks into "houses" and chooses a pointed block for the top, feeds her doll and rocks the "baby" to sleep, drives the toy car across the bumpy brick fireplace and then moves to the smooth wall, makes the lion figure roar and purposefully stalk across the floor. Which toy is of more value to the development of the creative brain?
Bobby Rosenquest, assistant professor of education at Wheelock College in Boston sums it up well, "As the dolls and toys become more animated, the child is put in a responsive mode. The child is responding to what the toy does. That's very different from imagining and creating an entire world through play."
What Children Gain from their Play
The beauty of this observation is that it reinforces basic fundamentals of child's play. Young children are best served by toys that intuitively encourage the capacity for problem solving, open-ended creative thinking, persistence, and communication with others. Toys that generate new thoughts, actions, and feelings are the most valuable in the development of children.
Appropriate playthings can help children to come up with new solutions and ideas. They can help children assess and develop skills and talents in social, emotional and intellectual areas. The most valuable sense of power comes when children are in control of a toy and figure out how to do things on their own. A positive attitude toward learning follows.
When the play scenario stems from the mind of the child and grows to impact the child's environment and relationships in a positive way, the mental wheels turn, minds become capable of thinking independently, internal motivation is established, and pride in accomplishment through effort are the results.
The Best Toys for Young Children...What Wise Parents are Saying
The best toys for young children ages 2-7 from a developmental perspective are those that allow the child to direct the play process....blocks and other building toys, dolls & doll houses, farm sets, toy cooking sets, balls, musical instruments, toy vehicles (cars, trains, planes, boats), puppets, space sets, animal figures, art materials, and dress up clothes.
In my role at Fat Brain Toys, I have the opportunity to review hundreds of comments about toys written by parents. In this endeavor, I have heard scores of parents come upon the irony that for young children, the more advanced the toy, generally the less advanced the thought inspired by its use. The toy that grabs your child's attention first is often a toy that will hold his interest the least over time. Take it from an expert...
Jerry Windley-Daoust, a customer and parent comments, "You know, jumbo cardboard blocks are not the glitziest item to appear under the tree, but they get played with constantly for years afterward. Our kids make lots of child-sized towers and houses for the dolls and stables for toy horses. This is a toy that I remember playing with myself as a kid -- we liked to fill a doorway with them, and then crash through the blocks, or make the outline of a grocery store with them."
The Best Toys for Older Children...What Wise Parents are Saying
As a child develops intellectually, construction toys, art supplies, science kits, sports equipment and more "skill based" toys can hold priority in a child's free time and build the mental muscle. Finding toys that develop the intellect AND hold an older child's interest can be a challenge. Although it is rare, a few manufacturers understand what makes a toy truly educational for the pre-teen and teenager.
Thames and Kosmos offers advanced physics and chemistry sets, natural history kits and more. Well-designed and based in true science, these sets inspire intrigue and are well received by older kids. "Powerhouse" includes experiments developed by physicist Uwe Wandrey, integrating physical science and technology lessons with the adventure of building a home and living on a remote island. (To survive, you must learn how to harness the power of the sun and the wind as well as tap the energy of other physical forces.) Creative Cosmetics provides a hip format for scientific experimentation, focusing on beauty, skin care, cosmetics throughout history, biology, and chemistry.
Elenco Electronics provides fascinating electrical kits designed by electrical engineers. These kits teach the fundamentals of more advanced principles of electricity. Kids design their own circuits to perform tasks with Snap Circuits. With Elenco's Robotics line, kids build a number of ultra-cool robotic toys.
Erector Sets and Geomags offer high quality construction and endless creative possibilities. With advanced design capabilities, these are highly popular mind-building toys even with the adult set.
Turning off the Screen - Switching on Your Child's Mind
Efforts to expose your child to broader thinking are worthwhile. Viktoras Prizgintas is a parent who understands the value of this approach. In this product review, he describes the real victory...
"I can tell you that Techno Gears - Marble Mania Extreme is a wonderful project that done properly will establish some amazing skills and bonds between you and your child. If you are looking for a toy that will baby-sit your child, you will be frustrated by both this product and your child.
I've read numerous reviews about products that require some careful preparation, detailed construction, and basic maintenance after completion. Often, these toys are criticized for being too difficult to build and keep functioning. My son Alex is mildly autistic and the problems presented by these toys are part of his process towards learning about himself and the world he shares with others.
Not everything works well at first, not everything is easy, and most things work better when faced together with others. Problem solving and success accomplished through a little perseverance are great life-lessons.
I'm not an engineer by trade. In fact, I'm a musician with no technical training. Together, Alex and I learn about the importance of reading directions, taking inventory of parts, the slow process of building. We appreciate the joys of inserting our creativity to shape the outcome. Ultimately, we experience great pride in sharing our successes with others."
Carrying Past Wisdom into Today's High Tech World
Over the last century, many toys have found permanent residence in the National Toy Hall of Fame... Basic Building Blocks, Lincoln Logs, TinkerToys, Jigsaw Puzzles, Erector Sets, Crayola Crayons, Play-Doh, Slinky, Marbles, Silly Putty, Etch A Sketch, and Lego. In recent years, very few toys meet the same standards of excellence in creating child-driven motivation for learning. Intuitively, many grandparents realizing this argue that they don't make toys like they used to.
Throughout history, play has been coined "child's work." Child's work involves preparation for life skills. Does your child play with toys that encourage relationships, motivation for learning, independent and creative thought? As families, as parents, as kids, maybe it's time we just get back to "work!"
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